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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Swept Away: Babel's Salute to Class of the Past

"Goodbye, Deadmen!" at the Hermitage Theater is the latest of Mikhail Levitin's projects in reviving the Soviet drama of the 1920s and 1930s. This time the object is Isaac Babel's neglected play, "Mariya," written in 1934. And, as usual, Levitin gives us even more.


Stuffed around the cracks are four interludes using either Babel's short stories or a tragi-farcical folk song to loosen the tight structure of the episodic play in eight scenes. That, plus a handful of tactful liberties taken with the play itself, creates a sometimes disorderly, always evocative show that embraces, rather than merely depicting, Babel's look at people doomed to extinction.


The world of "Mariya" is inhabited by the noble tsarist general Mukovnin and his daughters Katerina and Lyudmila, and a crew of shady characters led by Isaac Dymshits, a Jewish blackmarketeer making hay in the chaos of civil-war ravaged Russia. The clash of these two social strata, both with their roots in tsarist Russia, is nothing compared to the threat they face from the Bolsheviks. In fact, they are so endangered, they almost find themselves coming together involuntarily out of self defense.


The urbane, high-strung Isaac (Viktor Gvozditsky) is courting the frivolous, young Lyudmila (Yelena Kotikhina) largely as a means of rubbing shoulders with nobility. Katerina (Darya Belousova), looking every bit a cadaver before her time, is horrified by her sister's loose behavior, but powerless to stop it. Their ailing father (Boris Romanov) is tragically caught in a typically Russian vice: Oblivious to the fact that his kind is soon to be swept away, he seeks to understand the social chaos buffeting him rather than oppose it.


Hanging above them is the specter of the eldest daughter Mariya, whom Babel never brings on stage. The apple of her father's eye and her sisters' favorite, she is also a volunteer in the Red Army. The author used her aura to signal his own impartiality and understanding of social change, blurring the line dividing negative and positive forces.


Levitin, enjoying the luxury of hindsight, is not so unbiased. From time to time he brings on a ghost-like figure to the edge of the stage, her sorrowful air undercutting her family's reverential talk of her.


In his interpretations of the others, Levitin followed Babel to the letter. Whether it is Isaac and his scraggly band or the fragile, slowly deconstructing Mukovnin family, everyone in this universe is complex, vulnerable and endowed with dignity.


Boris Romanov's exquisite General Mukovnin gives a poignant, inner light to this constellation of mismatched partners on a journey to ruin. The renowned actor's performance is so subtle, it seems as if one can even hear the thoughts behind his careful motions and transparent voice.


Viktor Gvozditsky, whose Isaac is as elegant, sinister or powerless as the situation demands, steps out of character to perform a superb reading of Babel's story, "Di Grasso," about a boy entranced by a travelling Italian actor. It has nothing to do with "Mariya" per se, but everything to do with invoking Babel's razor-sharp brand of anti-sentimental sensitivity.


The final scene of a young couple taking over the abandoned Mukovnin apartment is vintage Levitin. Babel wrote of workers moving furniture; Levitin has riff-raff madly and vainly struggling with a piano. It is a comically penetrating symbol of harmony squandered by those who cannot fathom it.


Garri Gummel, as always, designed a set that is equally graceful and fragmentary, while Svetlana Kalinina created luxuriously detailed costumes.


Levitin is a champion of excess. He loves piling on layers, tacking on addendums, and throwing spotlights on trivia. When it works, as it usually does in "Goodbye, Deadmen!" it creates a syncopated feast for the mind and the heart.


"Goodbye, Deadmen!" (Do svidaniya, mertvetsy!) plays Jan. 18 and 19 at 7 P.M. at the Hermitage Theater, 3 Karetny Ryad. 209-2076/6742. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.5